September 13, 2017

How I Overcame Abuse: Being the Witness

This week, we continue our series with Greg Reese, who shares a strategy for detaching from ego so that we can witness our reactions and behaviors, gain insight, and access change.


In part 1, Dispelling the Victim, we looked at the trappings of ego identity, and at the vital importance of releasing blame so that we can become proactive in our own personal growth.

By concentrating on our breath, we began to quiet our thoughts. Fighting a thought only entangles us with it even more. So we surrender, allow the ego it’s thought, and avoid engaging with it as we observe it pass by and fade away.

As our practice improves, we learn how to manage the mind, and it begins to surrender to our will. We begin to experience the blissful peace of a quiet mind.

This is where we want to take notice of something extraordinary. Here in part 2, I will attempt to illustrate the practice of Being the Witness. This is the ancient method I used to overcome the destructive patterns which wreaked havoc in my life for years.

“If you observe your mind carefully, you may notice that there seems to be an aspect of your consciousness that quietly observes everything. It seems to exist in the background, and unlike the ego mind, it never judges or criticizes anything. It simply remains the silent witness. This aspect of our consciousness is known in some traditions as The Witness.

When we see things from the perspective of the ego mind, then we get caught up in all the drama. We get lost in the story because the ego is part of the story, it takes everything personally. But when we shift our perspective to that of the Witness, and observe ourselves from this seemingly outside point of view, then we can observe exactly how we are behaving.

It seems that many of us have come to identify ourselves as being our ego. And this is exactly what the ego wants. It wants to be in charge. It tricks us into thinking we are the name, the body, and the personality. But the teachings of all religions, and all spiritual and occult traditions say something different. They all teach that we are not the body, and that we are not the mind. They claim that we are a spirit which is incarnating a human body, and operating the ego mind.

We could look at it like a board game. For instance, in a board game, we need a game-token in order to play. Without it, we cannot interface with the board. So in this game that we call life, Earth is the game board, and our body/ego is the game-token.

The benefit of being the Witness, is that we gain knowledge about ourselves. It's like you’re an anthropologist, studying your own personal human game-token. And the more I came to understand mine, the more control I had over it, and the better I could play the game.”

~Sex Drugs and Om: An Autobiography of an American Yogi

The process of shifting our identity to the Witness takes practice. It requires a good habit of quieting the mind and self-observance so that we can become aware of the different aspects at play within our own mind. 

In my own experience, upon deep introspection I became aware of a physical-mind, an emotional-mind, a higher-mind, and a witnessing-mind. The witnessing-mind is what we are after. It is the part of us that is always silent and observing. By quieting our thoughts, we can tune in and focus our awareness upon this witnessing-mind. And the more we become aware of it, the more we become the Witness. 

To keep things simple, we can categorize the other aspects of the mind as the ego. And the unrestrained ego wants all the attention. It will try dressing itself up as the witnessing-mind to steal our focus, but will eventually give itself away by breaking the silence. The Witness is always quiet, and so calming the mind is crucial to becoming aware of its presence.

The more we become aware of the witnessing-mind, the more easily we shift our perspective there, and become the Witness. And when we cement this into our practice, we no longer think of things as happening to me, for we have separated ourselves to a certain degree. We gain the advantage of seeing ourselves objectively. No longer blinded by the emotions that come with ego identity, we begin to see ourselves as we truly are.

There is a trendy new phrase coming about as of late: trigger warning. The word trigger is referring to the experience we have when we uncontrollably react to something and get emotional. Being triggered, is when we unconsciously react to certain words or stimuli.

For example:

Imagine a woman who was broken-hearted when her last lover had an affair with a ballet dancer. A year later, a different man that she is dating invites her to the ballet. As the word ballet passes through her mind, her emotions are triggered, chemicals are dispensed in the brain, and she gets angry. So angry that she starts a fight with her new lover. What could have been a happy moment with a loved one has now turned hostile and ugly.

A word triggers a painful memory, which triggers an emotional response, and we react. This is not good. We want to be in control of ourselves, and if we are uncontrollably triggered by words, then we have no self-control.

Being triggered is not an enjoyable experience. It leaves us feeling powerless and weak. But when we are triggered while observing our self as the Witness, then we can clearly observe the experience, come to understand it, and gain the wherewithal to change.

Being triggered while observing myself as the Witness is what changed everything for me. The growth was so rapid that I started looking forward to getting triggered, so that I could dispel more of the clutter, and continue to improve my life. If the goal is to live our life without ever getting triggered, then getting triggered is perhaps the only path to get there.

It would seem that this is what the mythos of slaying the dragon and taking its gold is all about. When we face our inner fears, then we reap the golden treasure of liberation.

“But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.”

What we have ended up with are symptoms, and with an objective state of mind, we can study these symptoms and gain self-knowledge. Which is exactly what we need to strip away all the clutter that keeps us from experiencing our true nature.

“I have noticed how proficient we all are at observing and criticizing others, which isn't much of a useful skill. But if we turn this focus inwards towards our self, then it becomes extremely useful. To do this effectively, we need to learn how to be the Witness.

If we think we are the game-token, then it’s too painful for us to find flaws. Because we take it personally, and our feelings get hurt.

I couldn't see the hard lessons that were being shown to me with Crystal, because I thought that I was the game-token. I identified with it so much, that it hurt me to see its imperfections.

But all of that changed when I stopped seeing myself as the person, or as the ego, or the body. When I shifted my perspective to that of the Witness, then I began to see things objectively.

What I saw was a wounded and malformed person. Malformed like a crystal that didn't grow in perfect conditions. Conditions were not perfect, the world is chaos, and so it adapted as best it could.

By studying these malformations, I was able to learn how to better love myself, how to better manage myself, and how to better keep my life in balance.
And the best part of this whole process, is that once I began to see things objectively, the negative programs of the mind began to break down and dissolve.

All I had to do was become present, shift my awareness to the Witness, and observe the self. Knowledge and understanding then came naturally. The game-token adapted, and began to heal its own wounds."

~Sex Drugs and Om: An Autobiography of an American Yogi

When we aren’t disorientated by the emotional reactions of getting triggered, then we are able to see things more clearly and learn a great deal about ourselves.

I used to repeatedly end up in relationships with angry and abusive women. When I was identified as the ego, then emotions muddied my thoughts and these negative patterns ran their destructive course unnoticed. I remained ignorant to my own behavior. A victim. And change was not an option. But after observing myself as the Witness, I was able to recognize the negative patterns, and clearly understand them.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this process, is that the growth happens on its own. All we have to do is identify the disorder, and surrender. When we do this, then something inside of us makes adjustments on its own, and growth happens.

We will be looking more at surrender in part 3, Self-Acceptance, but for now, we can always practice bringing our awareness to the present moment, quieting our thoughts, and being the Witness. It may take years to achieve this, but the end result is freedom from our past and the ability to be fully present.

Greg Reese was born in Vallejo, California, raised in Cleveland, Ohio and now lives in a yoga ashram in Virginia. Since leaving High School, Greg has been a carpenter, musician, filmmaker and writer, as well as a saw-gunner in the US Marines. At the present time, he works in the audio-video department of the yoga ashram.

Having been a writer of poems and essays all his life, and having had such a uniquely unusual life so far, Greg decided to write a book about his experiences. Sex Drugs and OM: An Autobiography of an American Yogi, is an enlightening, entertaining account of how he elevated himself beyond suffering with yoga and meditation, and found sustainable happiness.

Greg is busy writing his first novel, plans on moving to Hawaii, and writing several more to come.

His favorite quote comes from Robert Anton Wilson, and sums up his feeling about belief - “Only the madman is absolutely sure.”

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